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Myths About Sexual Abuse In Sports

Sexual Abuse of Young Athletes Underestimated, Under-Studied

MYTH 5: "We can't touch athletes any more"

Is abuse more likely in sports where there is a lot of close interpersonal touching/manual support?

As far as we know, no. There is no proven connection between handling or manual support and the likelihood of sexual exploitation.26 However, just as happens in physiotherapy or nursing, there are common sense protocols that should be observed by any coach or trainer who has to touch an athlete. This helps to secure consent and alerts the athlete and anyone watching about what to expect and why it is being done. Further, no one in their right mind would stop a coach or helper comforting an injured athlete - as I have heard suggested in some coaching workshops.

MYTH 6: "Ours is a team sport so we don't need to worry"

Are athletes in individual sports are more likely to experience abuse than those in team sports?

No. Abuses of all types take place in all sports.27, 28  No sport is immune. Individual performers are often involved in squad training; team athletes often train alone. The competitive structure of a sport tells us nothing about the type or frequency of safeguarding problems that may be encountered.29 However, we do know that abusive initiations ceremonies - termed ‘hazing'" - are often associated with team sports.30, 31

MYTH 7: "Coaches are the main problem"

Are coaches the majority perpetrators of abuse?

No. In fact, athletes perpetrate more sexual harassment on their peers than do coaches.32, 33  Athlete-athlete bullying is also widespread but we have no systematic data on this. Hazing has been studied a lot in North America and is known to also take place in the UK, among both male and female athletes. We are only just starting to see studies of hazing in British sport but several high profile incidents have appeared in the media in the past few years, including one student death.34, 35

MYTH 8: "All our coaches are licensed so we don't have to worry"

Are perpetrators of sexual abuse in sport drawn mainly from those without proper qualifications?

Not necessarily. On the contrary, coach perpetrators are often very highly qualified and very highly respected which acts as a mask for their misdemeanors.36 However, it is true that we know very little about people working in the unregulated sector. A notorious U.K. child murderer , for example, used informal sport sessions as a means of accessing young children.37 Hopefully we now have better system in place for background checks and, as coaching becomes fully professionalised, more people will experience safeguarding training and adopt best practice.

MYTH 9: "We work in a male-only environment so we don't need to worry"

Is abuse perpetrated only by males on females?

No. Women also abuse.38  But since most coaches and athletes are male, there is a statistical probability that most perpetrators of abuse in sport will therefore be male. Women are certainly involved in perpetrating emotional abuse and bullying: we have no studies yet of perpetrator gender and neglect in sport.  We do have some data showing that female athletes are starting to mimic male hazing traditions.39, 40  Both men and women, boys and girls, may be victims of any type of abuse. Furthermore, even though there are known cases of homosexual and lesbian perpetrators in sport, sexual orientation is not related to sexual abuse.41Many men who perpetrate sexual abuse are married with children.42 Making assumptions about sexual orientation and abuse in sport simply fuels homophobia.

MYTH 10: "Safeguarding is just for softies ... a bit of rough and tumble never did me any harm as a kid"

Is safeguarding an extension of the ‘nanny state' and political correctness? After all, one person's abuse is another's way of toughening up the athlete.

Wrong. This kind of attitude reflects institutional tolerance for maltreating athletes and overlooks the longer term harm that can result from ‘tough' training and coaching regimes. It's very similar to ... 

MYTH 11: "Only the strong survive." "No pain, no gain."

Does success demand that athletes should suffer emotionally?

No. Performance success is linked to support and nurturing as much as it is to mental toughness. There are no gains (but many losses) to be had from athlete abuse.43-48